Head lice are a very common problem, affecting millions of people each year — especially preschool and elementary school-aged children and their close contacts. Head lice are tiny, wingless, parasitic insects that live and feed on blood from your scalp.
Getting head lice isn't a sign of bad personal hygiene or an unclean living environment. This itchy infestation, also called pediculosis capitis, most commonly spreads through close personal contact and by sharing personal belongings.
Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are available to treat head lice. Following the directions properly and taking necessary steps at home are important to prevent head lice from recurring.
Head lice occur on the scalp and are easiest to see at the nape of the neck and over the ears. Small oval nits (eggs) resembling tiny pussy willow buds are visible on the hair shafts. ...
Common signs and symptoms of head lice may include:
When to see a doctor
Head lice can't fly or jump, and they're not transmitted by pets. They spread by head-to-head contact or via contact with contaminated personal belongings or home furnishings.
Sharing personal items
The greatest risk factor for getting head lice is coming into contact with someone who already has lice. Cleanliness and personal hygiene have little bearing on whether you get lice.
Young children, preschool through elementary age, are most prone to infestation, which often transfers to a child's family members. Females of all ages get head lice more often than males do.
Lice may cause you to scratch your head so vigorously that you break the skin. See your doctor if these scratches become infected.
Preparing for your appointment
In most cases, you don't need to see a doctor for head lice. But you may want to consult your family physician if:
What you can do
For head lice, questions you may want to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment if you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor also may ask you a number of questions, such as:
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Lice cement their eggs firmly onto the base of hair shafts, very close to the scalp. According to experts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nits found more than a quarter of an inch (6.5 millimeters) away from the scalp have either already hatched or aren't going to hatch. So simply finding nits isn't proof of an active infestation. The clearest sign is finding a living, moving louse. Combing wet hair with a fine-toothed comb is the best way to find this evidence.
Treatments and drugs
In some geographical locations, lice have grown resistant to the ingredients in over-the-counter lice treatments. If over-the-counter preparations don't work, your doctor can prescribe shampoos or lotions that contain different ingredients.
Combing wet hair
Lifestyle and home remedies
Lice can live for about two days without a meal, and nits will die within a week if they're not kept at the same temperature as that found near the human scalp. That's why it's so uncommon for people to be infected with lice by any method other than head-to-head contact. All close contacts need to be examined. Despite this low risk, you may want to:
It's difficult to prevent the spread of head lice among children in child care and in school. There's so much close contact among children and their belongings that lice can spread easily. It's no reflection on your hygiene habits or those of your children, and it's not a failure on your part as a parent if your child gets head lice.
You can ask your child not to share hats, scarves, coats, combs, brushes, hair decorations and other personal belongings at school. But it's not realistic to expect that you and your child can eliminate all the types of contact that may result in the spread of lice.
The best approach to head lice prevention is simply to take thorough steps to get rid of the lice — and their eggs — so that you don't have more lice to deal with.
Last Updated: 2011-06-01
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